The Arts

Opera at Spoleto Festival USA 2009 – Gustave Charpentier’s Louise

Opera at Spoleto Festival USA 2009 – Gustave Charpentier’s Louise featured image

reviewed by Paula Citron

Spoleto Festival USA 2009
Composed by Gustave Charpentier
Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume
Directed by Sam Helfrich
Starring Stefania Dovhan, Sergey Kunaev, Barbara Dever, Louis Otey, David Cangelosi, Stephen Morscheck, Marjorie Elinor Dix, Andriana Churchman and Anne-Carolyn Bird
At the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium
Charleston, South Carolina


The last time Louise was performed in North America was in San Francisco in 1967. Before that, it was 1939 at the Metropolitan Opera. Obviously, a performance of Louise is a once in a lifetime experience.

This being my first live Louise, certain facts became very clear. First, the opera debuted in 1900, and Gustave Charpentier was clearly influenced by Italian verismo, both in music style and theme. He wrote his own libretto which is a slice of working class Montmartre life. On one hand, there are the lovers – the seamstress Louise and the poet Julien – and their belief in free love. On the other are Louise’s parents and their repressed Victorian prudity.

Secondly, the libretto is astonishingly good. The characters and their psychology are well-developed and their relationships ring true. The various philosophical tangents such as one’s role in society and parent/children obedience are also interesting. Why this opera is not done more is a shame, and would certainly be a good substitute for Puccini’s overworked La bohème. The combination of text and music, the latter almost symphonic (read Wagnerian) in its lushness, make for compelling theatre, and maestro Emmanuel Villaume pulled out all the stops in dramatic expressionism. The swelling music assaulted the audience like a tidal wave.

In fact, in terms of being a “musical play”, Louise was riveting. This is due in no small measure to the sensational American-Ukrainian soprano Stefania Dovhan. She is a stupendous singing actress who can modulate her voice to bring out a rollercoaster of emotions. Her high notes have a sharp edge, but in the totality of her singing persona, she is an operatic dream. Dovhan is headed for an outstanding career.

Russian tenor Sergey Kunaev’s Julien was a bit of a stick, but he is good-looking and did produce the romantic sound needed for the role, including making his money notes. American mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever and bass-baritone Louis Otey as Louise’s parents were almost role perfect. Both have the big low Verdian voice that command the stage. They are also very good actors who captured the complexities of their characters. Sometimes Otey would weaken his vocal output, but Dever was the domineering mother throughout.

Perhaps one of the reasons Louise is not done often is that there are 39 singing roles, but any good opera chorus could produce the comprimarios to perform the small parts. In Spoleto’s case, this function was filled by the young singers of the Westminster Choir which is made up of university level students. Some were better than others, but they all tried.

Five other roles were given over to professionals. Character tenor David Cangelosi played the Noctambulist/Pope of Fools, the spirit of mischief as it were, who encourages free love and other bad habits. He is a long time opera veteran and this showed to full account in his fine interpretation. Bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck was the pathetic ragpicker who has lost his daughter to free love and who tinged his strong voice with suitable melancholy.

The three seamstresses, Louise’s workmates, are all very promising young singers. Mezzo-soprano Marjorie Elinor Dix as Gertrude, the shop boss, has a lovely honey-textured high voice for her fach. Sopranos Andriana Churchman (who is Canadian) as Irma and Ann-Carolyn Bird as Camille are both attractive singers. Churchman has an even light lyric soprano of a bell-like quality, while Bird’s is more seductively musk coloured. Her rhapsodizing solo about men and love showed she is a talent in the making.

Director Sam Helfrich went for realism and symbolism. In the one-to-one encounters between the major characters, conversation was intense and graphic. As for symbolism, he had Louise and her mother sitting on stage silently while Paris was waking up and where the secondary characters get to discuss the matters of the day. Since Paris is a key figure in the opera, to the point where Louise’s father’s final line is to curse the city for stealing his daughter, having Louise and her mother on stage shows the coming conflict that will erupt between Paris and family values. As well, the third act ends with Louise being crowned queen of the beaux arts, and Helfrich had the fourth act bleed into this scene so that Louise is wearing her elaborate costume back in her old apartment with her parents. (Her mother has come to get her because her father is ill, and they literally hold her prisoner thereafter). Again, the symbolic contrast looms large. Of course, having Queen Louise emerge from the dome of Sacré-Coeur like a Madonna is certainly a slap in the face at conventional rigid Catholicism.

In terms of design, kudos to Kaye Voyce for her Edwardian costume truism and to Aaron Black and his stark lighting. Unfortunately, where the production faltered was in Andrew Cavanaugh Holland’s set design. On one hand, the sombre working class kitchen of Louise’s parents was just fine with the silhouette of Montmartre dominated by the dome of Sacré-Coeur in the background. This set cleverly split apart to reveal the fullness of Montmartre. It is well known that Montmartre is a hill and the streets have steep staircases between them. Holland interpreted this aspect as scaffolds of a construction site, and that’s just what it looked like – a construction site without any echo of Montmartre (except for the church). Also, these narrow platforms made the chorus look very uncomfortable as they negotiated through them. As well, Julien visited Louise in her apartment by crawling through a large window that just jarred in terms of reality. In short, the set was the weak link in the production.

In the final analysis, Charpentier, the principal singers and Villaume and his players won the day.

Spoleto Festival USA 2009 continues in Charleston, South Carolina until Jun. 7.

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